Lexington business caters to the discerning smoker

Bob Willmott enjoyed a Fuente Double Chateau recently while working on a puzzle at the store.
Bob Willmott enjoyed a Fuente Double Chateau recently while working on a puzzle at the store. Herald-Leader

Paul Schwab, founder of Schwab's Pipes n' Stuff, was not your average pipe smoker. He was a skilled practitioner, a master of the art of packing and lighting, and a man so rarely without his pipe that even his driver's license picture included one.

"The photographer told him to 'look natural,'" says his son Jeff, so he clamped his lips around his pipe.

Schwab's prowess at keeping pipe tobacco burning led to his disqualification from the smoking contests once held at the Kentucky State Fair; no one else stood a chance.

Schwab has been gone for about 10 years, but the store that he and his wife, Pat, opened more than three decades ago in the old Lexington Mall is going strong, run now by Pat and Jeff Schwab.

In June, the Schwabs and their employees moved the business from the Woodhill shopping center to a building they had renovated and expanded on Southland Drive.

For the first time they have a mortgage instead of a lease. And for the first time, they're in a freestanding building. The nearest neighbors are across a street, and this works well for everyone. The reason becomes clear when you step in the door.

But before we do, it's best to insert this caveat: You must have been born by Nov. 19, 1994, to proceed further. Tobacco has bewitched and bedeviled mankind for eons, and although smoke from pipes and cigars is not generally inhaled, the heightened health risks associated with them are well established.

Smoke alarm: On a warm Indian-summer day, cigar smoke wafts through the parking lot from an open window. Inside, the plume leads directly to a customer seated in the smoking lounge enjoying a Casa Magna. But wait: A smoking lounge? Inside a Lexington business? The vigilant reporter smells a different kind of story until the owner pipes up: "We're exempt from the ban."

That's Pat Schwab, who also answers to "Mom," even from customers, and looks very law-abiding. She's trailed by a mother-daughter entourage of West Highland terriers who answer to Sophie and Hennie.

At least 80 percent of Schwab's business is in tobacco-related products, which means that a smoking lounge where a man — or woman — can relax with a Casa Magna for an hour is perfectly legal, and it means employees can bring their pipes to work.

This is why a freestanding building has its advantages.

"If you're next to a candy store, you're going to smell candy; if you're next to a tobacconist, you're going to smell tobacco," says Jeff.

Now, no one shares a wall with their business, which makes everyone happy.

"We love our new neighborhood," he says.

The first and last point the Schwabs want to make is they don't deal in products sold at your typical smoke shop or chain outlet. So if you walk in looking for a pack of Winstons, you'll be out of luck. But you can find a lesson in the ancient craft of pipemaking and aromatic canisters of in-house pipe tobacco blends. And inside a walk-in humidor the size of a boxcar is a selection of some of the best cigars that U.S. Customs and Border Protection allows.

Pipe dreams: Pat Schwab starts the pipe selection tour with the white Meerschaums, made from a mineral native to a 4-square-mile region of Turkey, she says. They're carved into dragon's heads, eagles, owls, even golf balls. The Bacchus head is a big seller. The mineral acts as "nature's filter of tar and nicotine," she says, so while they start out as white as golf balls, they gradually turn amber and then a deeper brown with use. Employee John Bates walks over and offers his own well-seasoned pipe for comparison. Each Meerschaum comes with its own individually shaped, satin-lined case. It's a fine instrument but a delicate one, too.

Then there are cases of carved briar wood pipes, mostly from Europe. The Italian Savinelli is their most popular brand.

"Carvers take a block of briar and carve what they want. The root is extremely hard, and that's why it doesn't burn when you smoke it," says Pat Schwab. "The briar wood can last 100 years."

There are pipes in many different shapes: the calabash was favored by Sherlock Holmes; the long-stemmed churchwarden was made famous in The Lord of the Rings. A little online research turns up a chart of 44 shapes: the apple, the bent apple, the author, the billiard ... Albert Einstein loved his billiard-shaped briar pipe and thought smoking a pipe contributed "to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs" — a statement used more than once in defense of the habit.

On the next counter are pipe tobacco blends. "My husband did many of the formulas 35 years ago," says Schwab. Lift the lid on one canister and you smell chocolate; open Pat's Cherry Lite and — you get the idea. And what about Voodoo Bitch?

"That was one the guys added," she says. "Sometimes they get a little carried away with the names."

Jeff Schwab blends them all in the back room in an orange cement mixer. Right now he's mixing up some Blackmoor, a blend of seven ingredients that was his father's favorite. Some of what goes into the blends might have started out as Kentucky burley; it comes back home as pipe tobacco after being shipped to Europe for finishing like a debutante of yore.

The shop's name is officially Schwab's Pipes n' Stuff. In-between the pipe displays and the lounge is an assortment of Zippo lighters, cigar cutters, pipe cleaners and humidors, as well as items like straight razors, carved walking sticks, chess sets — and products to get the smell of smoke out of a room.

There are curiosities left from the collectibles shop the family once owned, and for the person who has everything else: a cigar holder to clip on a golf cart. Alas, the bobble-head Fidel is not for sale. But the wooden cigar boxes go for a couple bucks each.

The 70 percent solution: The taste of a cigar, says Jeff Schwab, cigar connoisseur, is 70 percent a product of the outer leaf, the wrap.

To stay at its best, that wrap and what it wraps around require certain conditions. Inside the walk-in humidor, it's always 70 percent humidity and around 70 degrees, like a warm night in Old Havana.

Though the Cuban embargo means you can't sample Castro's favorite Cohiba (he gave up smoking in the 1980s anyway), you can experience the best Cuban cigar-making tradition in a brand such as Padrón or Arturo Fuente.

The Schwabs have traveled to Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, and visited the places where their cigars are made.

"We know the owners. They all started from family businesses," says Pat.

Cigars have had a resurgence in popularity in the past 20 years, aided by publications like Cigar Aficionado. Health experts might shake their heads in dismay, but people who enjoy a good robusto choose to focus not on the potential perils but on the immediate pleasure.

As Che Guevara, another revolutionary who loved his cigars, is quoted as saying, "A smoke in times of rest is a great companion to the solitary soldier."

Over in the smoking lounge, a solitary customer, Bob Willmott, is enjoying a few moments of relaxation, working on a jigsaw puzzle and smoking a Fuente Double Chateau. How does Willmott explain the appeal of cigars? Do they complement life's reflective moments? Are they a great companion?

"The best enjoyment for an hour you can get for $7.25," says Willmott. "They don't talk back and they don't complain."

So there you have it.

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